Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

First strike and the back foot

I've just watched an interesting response to an online debate between two authors. The details are irrelevant, except for the fact that these authors know each other well. One of them said something to the other that offended the lurking audience, and a backlash ensued in which some folks declared they'd never buy another book by that author because he was such a beastly, horrid man. (And variations on that theme.)

The interesting thing for an old spin doc like me was that the alleged insultee pointed out that the alleged insulter was a mate of his and that this was just blokeish banter. The context of the original comment, though, was completely lost because all the audience had seen was this apparently obnoxious statement. But it was too late: the author was already on the back foot, and judging by the reactions of onlookers, no amount of explaining and contextualising is going to change the minds of those who now think he's a grade-A bell-end and have boycotted his titles. The myth (I'm assuming the insultee knows if he's been insulted or not) has been born.

There are some lessons here for us all. Remember that I can make a politician look like a normal human being, so I know a bit about reputation management and how to put a parade-ground shine on a turd.

1. First strike. (Which can also be an own goal. The strike doesn't always come from the other side.) First strike is everything in PR. Rebuttal is for losers, even if you're right, you can prove it, and the first strike was so wrong it could bend space and time with its wrongness. Once something has happened and escaped into the wild, it's very hard to turn it around in the court of public opinion without a long campaign of drip-drip case presentation, no matter how right or innocent you are. I won't get into prebuttals and all that stuff, nor the dark art of bogus first strikes, because that's bound to end in tears. Just remember that humans form impressions quickly, so think before you write or say a word.

2. Context will bugger you every time. Relying on audiences understanding the context and tone of a statement is risky, especially on the internet. (It's bad enough in other media.) At the source, a comment may be clearly signposted and understood as banter between mates. Once a few lines are taken out and quoted elsewhere, though, they can become something very different. By the time the words are separated from the original source by three, four, five degrees or more, all the average punter can see is a statement that looks on the surface like a poor advert for someone's attitude to life. It may well be completely misleading; but it's a soundbite, and those have a life of their own, as anyone who's edited a TV interview will confirm.

Rebuttal and attempts at explanation end up being like Snopes. Everyone could check before rushing to judgement to see if X really said what he or she was quoted as saying, or if urban myths have any basis, but generally people don't. Most people, even apparently smart ones, swallow what they're told and never think of checking it. Fair enough: you could spend your entire life checking every word you hear and read, and become paralysed by mistrust and paranoia. But the more outrageous the words I see, the more I'm inclined to go back to the source. No journo worth their salt would take something at face value without making sure someone had said what was claimed, and I don't mean checking some half-arsed wiki page, either. But very few people can or want to do that amount of digging, and it doesn't occur to others because they're subconsciously cherry-picking the meaning that reinforces their world-view. Seeing what you expect to see is another hard-wired human trait, as I often find when I read a mind-boggling headline that suddenly becomes much more mundane on further, slower scrutiny.

And that's without misquotes creeping in. When readers shopped in stores and didn't spend so much time online, you could eat kittens and nobody would connect your eating habits with your product. Now that readers will search for your name online, your kitten-eating comments will be there, and they'll judge you accordingly. Even if what you originally said was about feeding kittens rather than fricasseeing them. People often don't read what's in front of them.

3. Like it or not, the way you present yourself in public may affect how people see your product and even if they buy it or not. In the good old days, the public rarely had a chance to find out what an actor, artist, musician, or writer was like in real life. In many ways, I wish that were still true. There are people whose behaviour I really don't want to know about, but it's hard to ignore it when it makes news headlines. Backlash is an issue for anyone in the public eye. (And these days, the bar for public eye is much lower than it used to be – like when your prospective employer finds that stupid stuff you posted on FB.) There's backlash. Some of it is conscious: people often don't want to line the pockets of someone who beats his wife or a woman who racially abuses staff. On a more subliminal level, poor image can taint everything you do. There's an actor whose movies I can never watch now because I can't get his behaviour off-screen out of my head and separate him from whatever role he's in.

Moral of the lesson: reputation management isn't only for politicians and CEOs – or even just for writers, come to that. By all means be yourself on the internet, unless you're a dick, in which case keep it to yourself. But it's easy to look like a dick when the audience can't or won't see the context in which something has been said. At which point, I'll switch from spin doc advice to journo advice; when it doubt – leave it out.